Research

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Peer Experiences and Adolescent Cognition and Health

Brief Description

In this study, we are collaborating with Margaret Sheridan (Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School) to investigate the role that stress plays in the lives of teenagers. In particular, we are interested in how individual experiences shape stress reactivity and how this reactivity shapes emotional development.

Eligibility for Participation

We are currently recruiting 13-17 year-olds.  Due to the physiological recordings involved in this study, adolescents who have a heart murmur or a pacemaker, who are taking medication that affects their cardiovascular system (e.g., beta-blockers), or who may be pregnant are not eligible to participate.

Participation Details

The study involves coming to two visits at Boston Children’s Hospital, 21 Autumn Street. During both visits the participating adolescent will complete a variety of questionnaires and cognitive tasks. During the second visit, the adolescent will participate in a peer interaction with other teenagers over the Internet. The first visit lasts approximately 3 hours, and the second visit last approximately 2.5 hours.  A final online survey will be completed three months after the study visits.  We pay a total of $100 for participation.

Full Description

Adolescence is a critical period for the development of a broad range of mental health problems as well as for risky behaviors. In part, the susceptibility to emotional and behavioral problems observed during adolescence may be explained by a contrast between the maturity of reward, motivational and emotional systems in the brain relative to the immaturity of brain systems underlying the ability to engage in inhibit short-term desirable behaviors in the service of long-term goals. 

The brain systems underlying these types of cognitive and behavioral regulation undergo substantial development during adolescence and appear to lag behind the development of systems involved in reward seeking. While this neural development is occurring, adolescents’ primary social context is their peer group. Research has shown that the presence of peers can diminish adolescent’s capacity to engage in behavioral regulation and increase the likelihood of risk-taking behaviors.

Thus it may be that the adolescents who are most at risk for the development of emotional and behavioral problems are those who are most sensitive to the positive and negative aspects of peers.  To understand this, we are studying how peer acceptance and rejection influence adolescent’s impulse control, decision-making, and responses to emotional situations.  We are also investigating whether adolescent sensitivity to peer influences is related to the mental health problems and engagement in risky behaviors.

By understanding the influence of peers on adolescent decision-making, risk-taking, and impulse control, we hope to develop better strategies for preventing the onset of mental health problems and risky behaviors in adolescents.

This project is funded by the Jacobs Foundation.

Research Contact

If you are interested in participating with your child, please e-mail Leslie Rith-Najarian at Leslie.Rith-Najarian@childrens.harvard.edu or call 857-218-5577

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